Unit 17: The Great Depression
The dark years of the Great Depression began when the soaring economy of the 1920s took a nose dive in 1929. Americans were not prepared for the financial crisis. Those who were speculating & “making a killing” on Wallstreet, trying to get rich quick by playing the Stock Market in the short term, were hit with a grim reality in October of 1929.
To teach the Great Depression to high school students requires them to understand how the stock market works. When I was teaching, I had our Economics teacher come in as a guest speaker and give students a primer on the Stock Market.
So, in the Fall of 1929 people saw the stock market begin to dip slightly. They panicked and started selling their shares causing stock values to plummet. This rendered thousands upon thousands of businesses worthless. Overnight, businesses had to close down and lay off workers. As a result inflation went through the roof. Not only did people lose their jobs, but now they could barely afford to buy food!
The effect did not confine itself within the United States, either. Since many businesses had overseas interests, the crash of ’29 rippled throughout the entire world. When the 1930s began, wage cuts and increasing unemployment brought Americans to their knees.
Excellent teachers know how to get their students to empathize. Encourage students to ask questions like, How did the American people of the 1930s deal with all of this?
Many who lost fortunes in the stock market committed suicide. Others who could no longer support their families, left to find work elsewhere. Teenagers, especially, had it hard. They were old enough to work and help their families, but no work was available. They saw themselves as a burden and an extra mouth to feed.
As a result, many left home looking for employment and opportunity elsewhere. They jumped trains from coast to coast, risking their lives.
The fact that a severe drought hit the Midwest at this time was like pouring salt in a wound. Farmers lost entire years’ worth of crops and on top of that, crop prices dropped like bowling balls.
But Americans survived the Great Depression. Determination and help from a new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned the country around. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, created countless government programs that altered the role of government in American society forever.
Among the many programs Roosevelt created, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was phenomenal. Teenagers and young adults all over the country were put to work in national forests, rebuilding and cleaning. They were given room and board on camps in the national forests and were required to send home a percentage of their earnings to their families.
There are many spectacular films and literature related to this unit. Two perfect books which have also been made in great movies include The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, both by John Steinbeck. For more ideas, visit our
Teach with Movies
Teach with Literature
The following are primary sources written by people who were teenagers during the Great Depression. These letters are to be used with the above project, giving students an overall understanding of the feelings, fears, hopes, and thoughts of teenagers at the time. Have your students read and pass around these letters so that everyone gets a chance to read them all.